According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 5,000 US youths under the age of 21 die from unintentional injuries, homicides and suicides related to alcohol consumption every year. But a new review states that if the age-21 drinking law was not in place, these numbers would be even higher.
The review was recently published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, also known as the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act, all US states are required to prohibit individuals under the age of 21 from purchasing or publicly possessing alcoholic beverages. By 1988, all US states had adopted this minimum drinking age.
But in 2006, this federal law was challenged. A nonprofit organization called Choose Responsibility began campaigning for a reduction in the legal drinking age, stating that young adults between 18 and 20 years old should have the ability to make mature decisions regarding the place of alcohol in their lives.
In 2008, presidents of universities and colleges over the US created the Amethyst Initiative. This group called for a re-evaluation of the legal drinking age.
According to Prof. William DeJong, of Boston University School of Public Health in Massachusetts, these campaigns received a lot of media attention.
This led public health experts to carry out new studies in order to analyze the impact of the age-21 drinking law.
Age-21 law 'reduces alcohol consumption and drunk-driving accidents'
Prof. DeJong and colleagues conducted a review of research that had been conducted since 2006.
In a new review, researchers confirm that the age-21 drinking laws have helped reduce youth binge drinking and the number of drunk-driving accidents.
From this, the investigators found that since the age-21 law was brought in, youths have been consuming less alcohol and are less likely to be involved in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents.
The researchers point to one study conducted in 2011, which revealed that 36% of college students reported consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in the past 2 weeks - defined as "binge" drinking.
However, in 1988, 43% of colleges students reported this level of drinking - meaning there has been a 7% reduction in binge drinking among youths since all states adopted the age-21 drinking law.
Furthermore, the researchers found that in high school seniors, binge drinking had reduced even more over this period - from 35% in 1988 to 22% in 2011.
Prof. DeJong notes that young people will consume alcohol despite the age-21 law. But he says there is clear evidence that the law is reducing the number of alcohol-related deaths in this population.
He says this may be partly because youths do not want to get caught engaging in underage drinking, therefore they are not willing to take certain risks, such as getting behind the wheel of a car.
Better education needed
Of course, underage drinking remains a concern in the US. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that individuals between 12 and 20 years old drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US, and more than 90% of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinking.
But Prof. DeJong says better education surrounding alcohol consumption may help discourage this population from underage drinking.
He says that many young people drink alcohol because they believe everyone else their age does. But, he says, "there are many young people who do wait until they're 21 to drink." Showing youths that this is the case may be effective against underage drinking.
And when it comes to the age-21 law, he says this should not be revoked, it should be more heavily enforced.
"Some people assume that students are so hell-bent on drinking, nothing can stop them. But it really is the case that enforcement works."
Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that young adults may damage their DNA with weekend alcohol consumption.